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Atheism as ‘Gateway Drug’ to Drifting Away

As of this writing, I am facilitating a course/discussion regarding the decline of Christianity in America.  Someone made a point in the discussion that is similar to one I’ve made previously… but I can’t find where I made it so I’m making it anew.  🙂

The question begins with a look at the measured increase in self-identified ‘religious nones’ in America since around 1990.  (This data can be found linked to here.)  In 1990, some 8% of Americans identified themselves as having no religion.  Today, that figure has doubled.  In the meantime, there has been a drop in those identifying themselves as Christians, from about 86% to 76% of the nation’s population.   Some back of the napkin calculation suggests that some 30,000,000 fewer people call themselves Christian than did in 1990 with a significant portion of these falling into the ‘religious none’ category.

However, of note, the number of outright atheists has seen only a moderate increase.  Even many of the ‘religious nones’ say they believe something.

You would hardly know this in a survey of the content on the Internet.  The hard core atheists and secular humanists are over represented in blogs, forums, and the like.  In the meantime, atheist apologists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc, have a firm hand on the direction of dialog.  Throughout this, the evolutionary party line is enforced in almost every place, except for the private consciences of the individual (for now).

Hard core philosophical naturalism as expressed by the ‘new atheists’ is having an influence.  So what gives?   Why are their numbers not off the charts?

This is my explanation as a Christian apologist having been involved in this topic for fifteen years as well as a teacher and church professional.  True, it is anecdotal, but I think it explains the facts.  I think more rigorous scrutiny would demonstrate it.

Essentially:  hard core philosophical naturalistic materialistic secular atheism is a ‘gateway drug.’

Consider this common scenario:  Young Christians emerge from their congregation’s educational programs with a basic grasp of simple Bible stories and simplified theology and then go off to college.  At college, they are confronted with an academic atmosphere that is hostile to Christianity.  Evolutionary theory in particular is jarring, but there are a variety of other ingredients, too.  Faced with the appearance that ‘all the facts’ are against Christianity and the appearance that all smart people reject religion, and ill equipped from their upbringing to offer a response beyond “I just believe,” young folks fall away in droves.

Thus far, the common scenario.  But that is not the end of it.

Why not?  Because as these young folks mature, and as they graduate and enter the ‘real world,’ they find that the hard core secular atheism just doesn’t add up.  People can ridicule the idea that there is design present in the universe but these young adults know better.  Evolutionists can insist that morality can be fully explained by natural selection, but these young adults aren’t buying it.  Materialistic philosophers can insist that it is unscientific to suggest that God is the best explanation for the ‘Big Bang’ but ordinary people scoff at their reasoning.

These trends are real and the New Atheists know it.  It annoys them to no end that people could defy their iron logic and scientific conclusions.  Unfortunately, it is still a free country and there is nothing they can do but continue to brow beat dissenters.

Note, however, that in the process described above, though these young people return to some kind of belief, they do not necessarily return to Christianity (or whatever their childhood belief system was).   More and more often, they don’t.  In their minds, the evidential foundations of ‘organized religions’ have been irrevocably dismantled- that much they still remain convinced of from their college indoctrination.  Where does this leave them?

A great many of these folks will identify themselves as Christians but not go further and align with an ‘organization.’  I doubt I am the only one to notice how many people dine at the Belief Buffet, picking and choosing what they will believe from all the available choices.   This trend is substantially manifested even among those who call themselves ‘Christian.’  More often than in previous years, though, they simply cast off all labels and fall into the ‘religious none’ category.

There are probably reasons for that, too.  For example, the ‘war on labeling’ has been going on for some time now and today we are at a point where it is pretty safe, socially, to dispense with them altogether.  But I digress.

If my explanation is correct, then there is reason for Christians to be hopeful.  But there is also reason for them to be alarmed.  It would appear that for all the effort of the New Atheists, they win relatively few converts.  Unfortunately, these converts dominate academia and important sections of the scientific community:  they are strategically placed to build their base.  Still, it is much easier to discuss truth claims with those who already believe something than those who claim not to.  (Atheists don’t ‘believe’ in evolution or anything like that… these are scientific facts, and facts are to be obeyed, not believed).

But we must view with alarm the fact that our young people find themselves as unprepared as they are.  We cannot comfort ourselves with the belief that after their ‘normal’ time of doubt they will eventually return to orthodox Christianity.  This is not the case.  They will return to ‘belief’ but fewer and fewer return to faith in God through Christ.

From an eternal perspective, these are in no better situation than if they had remained hard core materialists.  It is thus little consolation knowing that so many of them will ultimately reject the New Atheist Gospel.

An important key seems to be to do a better job of retaining those who are raised in the Church in the first place.  A need for a more robust education seems obvious.   But the final answer will be bigger than that.  How do you keep folks from becoming drug addicts?  It isn’t just by making ‘gateway drugs’ illegal.  There are well known indicators surrounding people who reject drugs (gateway, and otherwise) and it would be my position that these indicators are generally absent in the churches as young people perceive them.

There is much to do and not unlimited time to do it.



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    • Calvin on May 17, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Look, the reason the US church is seeing such a decline in followers is that the church has been taken over by right-wing fundamentalists. Those who don’t believe in God (Not “believe god doesn’t exist”, I literally mean “Have no belief in god”) have little to do with it.

    The author of this article should take a cold hard look at why kids are actually leaving the church. It’s nobody elses fault; people are simply rejecting the militant republican Jesus.

    PS: I am one of those kids.

    • Anthony on May 17, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    thanks for your comment, Calvin.

    I am the author of the article and I have in fact taken a cold hard look at why kids are actually leaving the church. Indeed, there was a period when I also left the church, faith, and belief in the existence of God, or of anything else. Moreover, I was raised as a default liberal democrat- and this notion of a ‘militant republican Jesus’ did not play into my disbelief at all. The point is that a ‘cold hard look’ reveals that people leave for a variety of reasons, and just as you are not God and cannot dictate the definition of atheism for all atheists, you are not God in order to know why all atheists leave the faith. As someone who interacts with atheists quite a bit, I am aware of their diversity. Are you?

    Now, the merits of your unique position are not very impressive. If I get this straight, you became an atheist because you perceived Christianity being taken over by ‘right-wing fundamentalists.’ You hate the ‘militant republican Jesus.’ You expect this position to be taken seriously? I mean, even if I allowed that people were falling away from faith because of this, do you really think anyone ought to change their approach because of it? Are you somehow unaware of the fact that there are millions and millions of people who take the label Christian who are Democrats and even liberals?

    What is your problem with them?

    They embrace evolutionary theory. Check.
    They think having the Church delegate charitable duties to the government is a good thing. Check.
    They are Democrats. Check.
    They are liberals. Check.

    They are everything you wanted out of Christianity, and yet instead of settling in with them, you threw out the whole package. That doesn’t sound rational or mature to me. Oh, I’m sure that you are truthfully telling me your story as you understand it, but obviously ‘militant right-wing fundamentalists’ taking over Christianity can’t be anything more than a very tiny part of why you are an atheist. If this really were the case, you would easily have found liberal Christians to hang out with.

    So don’t give me this jazz about the church being taken over by right-wingers. That’s just smoke and mirrors concealing your true motives for leaving Christianity- apparently even concealing them from yourself.

    On a related note, my own personal approach is not to abandon any good thing because others use it inappropriately. There are people using legitimate medicine to euthanize people, but it would be stupid and childish of me to reject legitimate medicine because some folks in Europe use it in a way I don’t approve of. This is just like you rejecting Christianity because of ‘right wingers.’ It’s not what I would call an impressive argument. Shouldn’t you instead be looking for a legitimate Christianity?

    But that brings me back to wondering what your true reasons for being an atheist are.

    Thanks for your comment. I appreciate that you at least had the courage to do so, unlike the others…

    • mags on May 17, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    wow I found this from r/christianity but I don’t even know what I just read. A “gateway drug” to WHAT? Actual drugs?

    “they find that the hard core secular atheism just doesn’t add up.”

    Because of the morality issue and the beauty of the world?

    I don’t even.

    • Hobbes on May 18, 2011 at 1:55 am

    So, what exactly would “better prepared” Christians have to support their beliefs once they enter the “indoctrination” of higher learning? Try being intellectually honest. Seriously, what would they say other than that they “know it’s true.”

    As a Catholic, I (and the Church) accept evolution and little things like the fact that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. I honestly do not understand the American fanaticism concerning evolution. Why is this idea even considered consequential?

    • Anthony on May 18, 2011 at 7:36 am

    No, YOU try being intellectually honest.

    Well, that advanced the conversation, didn’t it?

    Seriously, what is even the point of making such statements? You say that you are a Catholic Christian. Don’t you feel obligated at all to charitably assume that I was being ‘intellectually honest’ already? Good grief.

    Thank you for proving that there are Christians who accept evolution, thus showing ‘Calvin’ that there is no reasonable basis for rejecting Christianity because of ‘right wing fundamentalists.’ I appreciate that.

    Re: Evolution, I’m not going to speak to this ‘American fanaticism.’ To your last question, why is it even considered consequential, here I think we may wonder where the heck you’ve been. I can’t believe you can seriously ask that question. As a simple illustration of why, you can take Dawkins’ statement that Darwin made it intellectually satisfying to be an atheist. Why would he say such a thing if it evolution is not ‘even considered consequential’? Evidently it is, and you missed the memo.

    Now, I’m with you to some degree as to the ultimate impact of evolution on faith- at least on logical, rational grounds. As you note, the Catholics happily embrace evolution and an old earth. Francis Collins is a scientist with few equals, and he is a Christian who embraces evolution and an old earth. One may suppose that evolution doesn’t disprove theism or Christianity at all, and atheists who pin their atheism on evolutionary theory are way off base. But in supposing such a thing it is obvious that I am not the one you should be asking this question. Find yourself an atheist that closely links the implications of evolutionary theory (as they understand them) to their own atheism and ask THEM why it is even considered consequential.

    If you know no such atheists and have never interacted with one, I think you need to get out more. You can’t throw a rock without hitting such an atheist. For example, just in my casual reading this week I came across this atheist’s comment:

    “Once you have learned how the universe began, how it evolved, it soon becomes clear that there is no god up there or anywhere else.”

    Huh. According to you, the idea of evolution and an old earth ought not be “even considered consequential.” Well, I suggest you take that up with Rebel and the hordes of other atheists you seem blithely unaware of who considered it very much so. If you have the answer for how the secular understanding of “how the universe began” and “how it evolved” is compatible with your Christian theism, then you have an obligation to share that with them. No?

    • Aria on May 26, 2011 at 12:18 am

    If you wanted intellectual discourse on your opinion essay, why are you insulting your commenters?

    • Anthony on May 26, 2011 at 7:05 am

    Oh, right. When people show up to my blog and their leading strategy is to insult me, it’s intellectual discourse. When I call them on it, I’m insulting them. This is a perfect example of that persistent phenomena seen on the net where a skeptic can say anything he wants in any manner he wants with as much rudeness and arrogance as he wants but have the Christian say anything even slightly assertive and the skeptic recoils in horror, “Oh, dear me! My feelings are hurt! How can you take that tone with me?”

    That’s not intellectual discourse. That’s intellectual dishonesty. I don’t tend to take it very seriously.

    In my opinion, the insults provided by my commenters (ie, “Try being intellectually honest”) have been pretty mild, and my response has in turn been pretty mild, (ie, “No, YOU be intellectually honest!”) serving to expose the useless and childish nature of the comments (“I know you are but what am I?” comments such as the one I highlighted work among fifth graders on the sand lot but don’t go far with me). But… pretty mild, really. If you think otherwise, I would suggest you LEAVE THE INTERNET IMMEDIATELY. I’m not sure you’ll be able to handle the stuff out there that is REALLY insulting!

    I do desire intellectual discourse on this blog, and when I see it, I’ll respond in kind. When people come in hurling elementary school taunts, that in my view does not constitute ‘intellectual discourse.’ Moreover, if I tell people that they are acting childish, I don’t believe that is necessarily an ‘insult.’ It is my hope that they will see my point, change their tact and drop the chip on their shoulder, and comment again without their arrogance and air of superiority. Likewise this comment in response to you: it was baseless and absurd and hypersensitive. But I am telling you that in the hopes that you’ll lighten up and try again. One can hope, anyway.

    • scott on May 26, 2011 at 8:05 am

    Im not sure what i just read here. There really is no developed idea to convey to the reader. I come off with a “college is of devil” and “eviltion is evil” and say “materialistic” alot of times like it some totally deep meaning. Needs a rewrite.

    • End Bringer on May 26, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Actually the developing idea seems to be that while the Christian Church doesn’t do an adequate job of preparing young Christians for the skepticism/cynisim of select areas of society secular atheists dominate in, the inherent notions of atheism are so fundamentally ridiculous to most people that it doesn’t win converts as overwhelmingly as one would think. As such people find themselves in a ‘religious limbo’ somewhere between the two, and this would be better avoided if the Church to a more active role and robust education.

    • scott on May 26, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Thank you! End Bringer. That little paragraph was clear and what the over stuff should have been. The overall impression i was getting was that young people arent agnostic enough, and cant deal with the knowledge of reality that was hidden or unknown to them. But the title is just plain silly. Id say that atheism is the last trainstop on the line and not the gateway. Its more accurate to say knowledge is the gateway, and then losing the faith follows because it becomes known that the original faith is not supported by anything and is equal to any other faith. That of course doenst have to lead to a strong atheism it can lead to a agnosticism or some deism or spiritualism. But im sure thats not what “the church” really wants though.

    • End Bringer on May 26, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    You’d be correct if atheism were true. But it’s not, thus you’re not. And despite it being shoved down people’s throats by college and society, many people inherently find the notions of complex ecological and biological systems developing from nothing by mere chance to be antithetical to their knowledge of how things work and the first-hand experience in there lives.

    For instance we KNOW things that have a beginning do not appear from nothing. Yet since the universe has been proven to have a beginning we now have atheists demanding just that notion. They demand it because this KNOWLEDGE leads to a conclusion that disproves atheism and they are uncomfortable with it. And because of the inherent ridiculousness and ad hoc nature of the notion, many people will simply not be convinced no matter how forcefully it’s promoted. Because when all’s said and done the facts just do not support atheism.

    So it’s indeed a question of who can’t deal with the knowledge of reality. But I’d say the one’s running away from it, are not who you think they are.

    • scott on May 26, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    My statement is pretty accurate. Im not sure where you are going with your last comment.

    • josh from america on May 26, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    Atheism is a stepping stone to cognitive development.

    When a person learns how to think in terms of formal reasoning, they will be able to get the factually correct answer. As it turns out, religion has nothing to do with thought or reason, only the musings of illiterate farmers with a propensity for violence.

    • Anthony on May 26, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Argument ad Assertion.

    But EB summed up the post pretty well… if it was such a monumental stepping stone then people would remain atheists. Alas, as far as the FACTS go, this is not what we are seeing. A variety of studies are available that show this to be true. (My original post links to a web page that has links to a fair number)

    What’s your explanation for them?

    Now to your assertion. I’m curious about how we have come to learn about the musings of these illiterate farmers. Did this knowledge come down to us through ESP? Did you download it from the Matrix? Or did you read it somewhere? Haven’t you ever wondered how illiterate farmers managed to write down their musings for you to dismiss so easily?

    So, this is your example of ‘cognitive development’ and ‘formal reasoning.’ Your only source of knowledge about these musings is that they wrote them down- but illiterate people cannot write. And yet we have them. On your reasoning, then, religious people are the only people in the world who have the capacity to not know how to read and write and yet they have passed down their musings in writing. A remarkable set of people, if you ask me! I’ve never heard of illiterate people being able to write as well…

    So, that’s what I think of your trumpeting about cognitive development… I have no confidence whatsoever that you have any corner on the market of ‘formal reasoning.’ Sorry.

    Now, where did I leave my favorite record of mute singers who nonetheless sing in perfect pitch? Right next to me round square, I suppose. Somewhere… I’ll find it…

    • Stathei on May 27, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    Wow, SJ, that’s a pretty strong argument you’ve got there. I may have to rethink this whole Atheism thing.

    Seriously, is that all you’ve got? You’re embarrassing yourself yet again with your utter lack of substance. What have you really got beyond “I read it in the Bible and therefore I believe it”?

    PS I know the answer to this one, because you have told me it time and time again when I have asked this same question and you have failed to answer it. The answer is “Nothing at all”.

    • Anthony on May 27, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    I really don’t know what you’re talking about. This thread was not an argument for theism or against atheism. It was a series of observations and analysis of certain studies and statistics. That you thought it was anything else illustrates precisely why you wouldn’t recognize substance if it smashed you across the face.

    Insofar as it is an argument against atheism at all, it is simply the demonstrable (as demonstrable as statistics can be, I suppose) fact that atheism does not ‘take’ for most people. Maybe all those people are idiots- or maybe they know something you don’t know. If you were paying attention, theism did not come out well at the end of this post.

    Look buddy. Let’s stop dinking around. You keep coming around even though you act as though you think I’m as shallow as a kiddie pool. I reckon you are waiting for me to say something intelligent. How about you and I get together at a bar, cafe, restaurant or something and let’s work out our issues over a beer, coffee, or steak- whatever. My dime.

    What say you.

    • Timaahy on May 30, 2011 at 11:57 pm

    Do it in Sydney and I’ll come.

    • Timaahy on May 31, 2011 at 12:10 am

    Your argument may or may not be true, but the “gateway drug” analogy doesn’t work for the process you are describing.

    Gateway drugs, as I’m sure you know, are “soft” drugs (like marijuana) that are easier to obtain, cheaper and generally less harmful when compared to “hard” drugs (like heroin). They are a kind of a foot-in-the-door to hard drug use, since they often desensitise the user to the dangers of drug use in general.

    Your argument is that the “hard core secular atheism” of college leads to some kind of watered-down, fuzzy-wuzzy, pick-and-choose spirituality later in life. Given the nature of gateway drugs, I think that means your analogy is backwards.

    • Timaahy on May 31, 2011 at 12:12 am

    Ah, EB… still banging the “mere chance” drum, eh? Haven’t you noticed yet that the drum isn’t there?

    • End Bringer on May 31, 2011 at 6:20 am

    I wouldn’t take the word of a guy with his fingers shoved in his ears to be able to truly tell when a whole orchestra is playing. 😉

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